Content warning: This post deals with aspects of the #MeToo movement.
By Anna Howard
In a recent article entitled “Communion and Consent,” Fr. Clint Wilson offered a critique of the practice of some in the Episcopal Church to offer communion to all who desire it, rather than requiring baptism before communion. This article was highly controversial in some quarters, and was revised the next day and given an addendum.
Despite the revision and addendum, the article remains troubling on two fronts: one is theological and process-based, the second is centered around the misappropriation of the trauma of others.
I would like to respond and re-center the conversation in a light that I hope will contribute a better framework. I think that, as we move forward as a church, a central question in all of our discussions needs to be: Does what we are doing, writing, and teaching, contribute to shalom?
Shalom is a wonderful word, the interpretation of which could fill volumes. It touches every aspect of human living, including our relationships with God, others, and the rest of creation. But for the purposes of this article, let’s consider it in terms of the total well-being and mutual thriving of everyone — traditionally known as the common good — regardless of who they are. It is about being radically committed to the love of our neighbor and the love of our God above all else. It is about moving toward eschatological realities where everything has been made new (Rev. 21:5).
It is important to note that Episcopalians practice an “open table,” meaning that all baptized Christians are welcome to receive communion at any Episcopal church. You don’t have to be a member of that congregation or even Episcopalian to commune. Some of our number, however, practice communion without (or without regard to) baptism, that is, anyone, regardless of whether they claim to be a Christian, is allowed or invited to receive communion.
If we are to call communion a sacrament, then we have to talk about what it means for something to be a sacrament. If communion is a family meal, then we have to talk about what it means to be in a family. The entryway to the church — the body and family of Christ — is baptism, and therefore we say that all baptized Christians are welcome to receive communion. However, I know of no priest that checks the proverbial baptism card at the altar (those don’t actually exist). In practice, a priest communes all who come forward to receive. Fr. Wilson notes this as well in his article.
I think this practice is right and good, and we can continue this while still saying that communion is a sacrament and that one should be baptized before receiving communion. I think we can also say that if a person is feeling called to receive communion and it turns out that they are not baptized, that we should consider this a step on the way to that person becoming a baptized Christian.
I’m certain that in most cases, should someone start regularly attending and receiving communion at any given parish that the priest would sit down with them and find out where they are spiritually. In the process, they would learn if the person were not baptized, and then lead them down the path to make that commitment and officially enter into the body of Christ. This is discipleship in practice: meeting people where they are and leading them into a deeper relationship with God, just as Jesus did.
Just as a friend or even a stranger can be invited to a family dinner should they turn up at mealtime, so the unbaptized may turn up at the rail, hungry for something they don’t yet even know exists. If the manner in which we eat the Lord’s supper is faith (BCP Article 28), and faith is itself a work of the Spirit in the heart, then the budding and unrecognized faith of many may bring them to the rail for reasons they cannot yet articulate, as the Spirit draws them to God.
Does this diminish from the sacredness of communion or the need to prepare one’s heart before receiving? I would argue it does not, for the desire of that person may be much purer than those who — though baptized — are receiving from habit or rote, and not letting the act of communing with Jesus each week have any discernible impact on their day-to-day life. In fact, the latter model for receiving communion should be considered dangerous. After all, communion is a recommittal to our union with Christ, and is, as Carole Bailey Stoneking put it, “…deadly work because it forms us into people ready to die for what we believe.” This holds perfectly with admonishment in the prayer book that “The Wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith … yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ: but rather, to their condemnation, do eat and drink the sign or Sacrament of so great a thing” (BCP Article 29). In other words, I think it would do many of us in the church a great good to consider our own manner of receiving and let God sort out what’s happening when, on occasion, an unbaptized person is drawn to the table.
And I don’t believe that saying that baptism is still a sacrament and still important detracts from any of this — for baptism is not only the entry point to the church but it is also a sign that points to the new earth and the resurrection (BCP Article 27) when the justice of God reigns for all of us. What is this justice? It’s rooted in the judgment of God, which — as with everything else God does — subverts all our broken notions of justice in the world by not being about “reward or punishment, but the victory of the divine creative righteousness and justice, and this victory does not lead to heaven or hell but to God’s great day of reconciliation on this earth.”
God’s great day of reconciliation on earth sounds a lot like shalom — the total well-being of everything in perfect union with God — and this is what baptism promises and signifies. That is something that’s too big, too transgressive of the norms of today, too life-giving and full of hope to be done away with as the entry point into the family of God.
Jesus offered himself—body and blood—as a sacrifice for the whole world, and because of this, I don’t believe someone receiving communion without baptism is in any way equivalent to a sexual assault as was implied in the article “Communion and Consent” when Wilson stated, “No one has the right to the body of another, and that includes the body of Christ.” Wilson has stated that he did not mean to compare the communion without baptism to sexual assault, but when this statement is made in the larger context of using #MeToo as an extended metaphor, invites understanding this in terms of assault as a natural reading of it as #MeToo is explicitly about the range of things that women (and sometimes men) suffer at the hands of those more invested in keeping power over everything from public spaces than in the peace and thriving of their neighbors.
Using #MeToo as a gateway to talk about communion without baptism is a mis-appropriation of many painful experiences and intimate stories. Regardless of the intent of the invocation of these experiences, the impact is stark. #MeToo is about the long-standing abuse of women at the hands of a society that has licensed men to have the right to our bodies, our time, and our comfort–and the myriad of ways that this plays out. The only posture that men should have towards this movement is one of listening to women and talking with other men in order to end rape culture and finally recognize women as equal citizens, not only of the state but of the Kingdom, so that we can live in peace and safety in public and private in ways that we cannot today.
In other words, men’s contributions to #MeToo should contribute to the thriving and well-being of women, and if #MeToo is to be invoked, the question must be asked if the purpose contributes to that thriving. Using these stories as a tool to try to make points in another context feels utilitarian and in fact participates in a culture that perpetuates the use of women and their experiences for the purposes of others. Most of the time this is because men don’t examine the patriarchal culture and presuppositions with which they have been raised. I would call Christian men and especially male pastors to this process of examination in order to contribute to the thriving of women in the church and in the world.
In our journey together to be the church — to live out what it means to be Christ’s body in the world — we must do better on a number of fronts. Examining practices we’ve employed is important and good. There are many ways the church needs to change in order to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). However, as we change, we must be sure we don’t throw out practices that have deep meaning and theological underpinnings, but neither do we need to interpret these so strictly that we aren’t actively meeting people where they are.
As we consider the relation between communion and baptism, we must put at the forefront the overall and total well-being of real people. I remember how moved I was when I first read Sara Miles’ account of receiving communion at St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco with no idea of what she was doing, she just knew she felt drawn. And in that moment, something changed and she began a process that ultimately led her to making the commitment to follow Christ in baptism and launching a food pantry ministry at the church to make real what she’d learned in communion and taking the Lord’s supper as an imperative to feed the poor. Communion and baptism go hand in hand, as communion continues the work that is begun in baptism, but there are instances where the draw towards baptism is begun in communion.
And as we move through this moment in time, I hope these pangs and struggles are labor pains of an era where we see true justice and thriving of all people. These are kingdom goals indeed! We need to be careful as a church that we aren’t appropriating the pain and struggle of others: treating others or their experiences as a means rather than ends. By keeping the love of our neighbor and working toward shalom in our communities at the forefront of everything we do, we can engage in these conversations with a love and humility that will then lead to the mutual thriving of those in our communities and extend outwards to the world around us. Which is after all, the work into which we’ve been called and baptized.
Anna Howard is a follower of Jesus and a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary, with an MA in Youth, Family, and Culture, a writer, and a community organizer. She has worked in a variety of churches from 1998-2009 in youth ministry and is the author of Creative Bible Lessons in Ezekiel.